Walmart teacher? (Pop/Classical, first footnote)

I predicted my last post would stir up a storm, and it did. I linked to my latest book riff, in which I rough my way through half the chapter in my book in which I’m going to refute the myth of classical music superiority.

And now I hope those who think I’m beating a dead horse will, first, read the comments on the post, and see that the horse — the belief in classical music’s superiority, especially over pop — is alive and foaming at the mouth. Such anger, from people who want to put pop down! Such disdain! 

And, I must say, such ignorance (just as I said in the riff) of pop music from most of the people who attack it.

But let it go. This is the first of three posts, in which I’ll show some of the consequences, some of the bad things that happen because of the belief — sometimes functioning overtly, sometimes covertly — that classical music is superior.

This first entry comes from Catherine Shefski, a piano teacher whom I’ve quoted before. The link takes you to her blog, which is well worth reading. Two posts that ought to get wide exposure: “If I were a 16 year old piano student…” (things she’d want her piano teacher to ask her to do), and “Going out to a concert” (about what would make her drive somewhere to hear music).

What I’m going to quote here comes not from Cathy’s blog, but from an email she sent me, which I’m quoting with her permission. It was her reaction to my book riff:

This past weekend I presented a clinic at the PA Music Teachers Conference in Bedford Springs, PA. (see my most recent blog post here). I spoke about how piano teachers can keep piano lessons relevant for the digital generation. My ideas were a little out there…and granted, a little much for most of the teachers to swallow but a few of there were very supportive. However, one teacher that I know personally, raised her hand and said she grouped piano teachers into categories. It was something like 1) The Saks 5th Avenue teacher, 2) the Talbots teacher and 3) the Walmart teacher. Apparently, my “method” places me in the latter category.

But I came home after the conference and attended my son’s performance at a local art gallery for one of the Drawing Socials held every weekend here in Scranton. (here’s one artist’s impression of a typical Drawing Social) and heard three bands (12 boys ages 18-20) playing all original music. In fact three of them are here in my office on the other computer listening to their music on Audacity and picking the best tracks. They are so enthusiastic, love music, compose, improvise, buy and sell lots of different instruments, are always on the piano, etc. And then I wonder how I can generate the same enthusiasm for music in my own teaching studio

If allowing the kids to play “popular” music in a casual setting, and not insisting that they memorize everything, and foregoing piano competitions, and teaching them how to read a fake-book makes me a Walmart teacher…then so be it.

By taking a superior attitude (to say the least) to pop music, the classical music world cuts itself off from so much energy, so much imagination, and so much delight.

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  1. Bill Brice says

    Bravo for Cathy! and a big razzberry to the “3 categories” critic! Those very categories — named as they are, to correspond with levels of economic wealth — pretty much reek of “elitism” in its worst sense. Jeeze! would my musical sensibilities be suspect if I were caught shopping at Target? Or enjoying bluegrass music?

    It’s not a zero-sum game. Finding delight in one genre of art does not lessen the value of others!

  2. Joe Shelby says

    I think the real issue is that very use of the word “popular”. It may have a denotation that includes all forms of culture that happen to be popular in the sense that classical is not, but it has a connotation that is what is emotionally charged – that of the mass market culture, spoon-fed to the masses, manufactured to be liked and sold as commodity, interchangeable from the next. 1 hour on “pop” radio demonstrates that easily, regardless of any aesthetic argument over quality.

    When you say “popular”, of course we’re going to think of Britney Spears and Lady Gaga, and all that is “wrong” with the image they present, the culture of greed and self-centeredness they represent. They represent to us WHY we no longer have easy access to the craft we love.

    When put to the challenge of it, you immediately respond by mentioning the exceptions to that mass-market culture, as if we didn’t already know them. Trust me I know plenty in the “pop” culture that I love (really well played blues and jazz, progressive rock from King Crimson through Yes to the contemporary Dream Theater, Ayreon, Flower Kings, and Marillion), and an addiction to the 80s pop of my youth that will never go away. Of course we can find good quality and craftsmanship in “pop” network tv and film (Scrubs, at least through season 7, is an excellent example).

    Your last paragraph in my reply in a sense gave up the whole argument: if you can rate a classical work, performance, or recording to be of higher quality than another, in the same sense that you can rate a “pop” work to be of a higher quality, then why can’t you thus treat both to be of the same culture, that is “music”, and rate them?

    Yes it is wrong to say that all classical music must by its very nature be better than the best of the pop world (say, The Beatles), but when using the word “popular” without some refining context, you evoke in your readership the images not of The Beatles or the many other fine examples of craftsmanship in Rock, Dance, Jazz and Blues, Country, and even Rap that are out there (ok, I’m thinking about Weird Al’s White and Nerdy, but there you go). Rather, you bring up the image of the marketed “pop diva”, selling sex and celebrity rather than music and art, where every aspect of their life hits the airwaves as unavoidably as the commercials for a reality tv show, and evoking strong distaste to the point of nausea.

    As the saying goes, “choose your words carefully”. By presenting only the dichotomy of “Classical” vs “Popular” to the classical audience, you automatically bring up images of the best of one to compete with the worst of the other, and neither your audience, the cultural world, nor your argument are really well served.

    And in fact it would go the other way around – to the music lover who happens to enjoy well crafted popular music but knows little of classical, you will likely bring up the image of The Beatles with all of their sonorities and production quality to compete with the “pops” station that plays Eine Kliene Nachtmusic and Pachebel’s Canon 37 times in a row.

  3. ken nielsen says

    Greg, your last sentence makes the most important point in this discussion, it seems to me.

    The classical music world is harming itself by refusing to accept that is part of a wider world of sound that moves people. (Not an elegant expression, I must admit).

    Most of the other arguments amount to “mine is better than yours”.

  4. John Montanari says

    A rock fan into my teen years, I gave up rock to concentrate on classical and jazz, which I felt were more worthy of my time and taste. Ah, the certainties of youth! Only decades later, in my early 50s, after a long career in classical radio, did I come to realize and regret what I’ve been missing, and find my way back to rock and pop, primarily of the indie sort. And what a pleasure it’s been to catch up with so many smart and talented musicians. So, why the change? Well, perhaps as I age, I increasingly feel the need to never lose contact with the younger generation. But mostly, I’m finding delight in the fact that every week, I can check out music that will be be fresh, timely, and created for a large and engaged audience. Sure, some of it’s junk. Yes, musical standards could be higher, though there’s something to be said for music that doesn’t take ten years of schooling to do. But at it’s best, rock and its offshoots are as creative and exciting as anything else around. I still love classical, and avidly present it on the radio and in concert. But in no way is my love for Bach compromised by my enjoyment of LCD Soundsystem’s latest. On the contrary, I need both to be musically whole.

  5. Janis says

    Lots of classical was junk, just like lots of pop and rock. The crap’s just been boiled off over the intervening 800 years. In 400 years time, the crappy pop and rock will be gone and all people will remember is the best of the best. It doesn’t take a huge amount of time, either. People wax eloquent about the 60s and how fabulous everything was, as if every single band was the equal of the Beatles and every single songwriter another Paul Simon. We’ve just started getting to the point where we’re conveniently forgetting the garbage. Even the much-maligned 80s are beginning to go through the same thing. I was there — there were indeed a lot of crappy neon-plastic bands, but there was also EVH. Who remembers Human League? Nobody — but we all know Eddie and Steve and Annie Lennox. In another twenty years, VH, Journey, and Springsteen will be just about all anyone thinks of when they think about the 80s, and everyone will have conveniently forgotten Flock of Seagulls. Okay, I exaggerate. A bit. But there will be maybe five bands tops in common memory, just like people think that every piece of Baroque music was written by Haendel or Vivaldi because all the crap’s been forgotten.

    Classical music has just been subjected to this “beat away the chaff” process for several centuries, so only the best stuff is left by this point. That’s why it’s hit-to-miss ratio is higher, and for no other reason. Every single classical composer is not the equivalent of Mozart, any more than every single 70s songwriter was the equivalent of Carole King.

    Even including the complexity of ideas dooesn’t give you a reliable dividing line between the two types. Chopin got ripped on pretty fiercely when he published his Opus 28 preludes for precisely the same reason people rip on pop and rock now — short, quick ideas that took about two minutes to appreciate superficially if you didn’t want to think about them any more deeply. Compare them to Paradise Theater or Dark Side of the Moon.

    ” … there’s something to be said for music that doesn’t take ten years of schooling to do.” That’s a huge part of the appeal of pop and rock, to me. Even people who don’t have a conservatory-ready technique can still have something musically stunning and worth saying, even classic in its way. I come back to Dennis DeYoung’s crappy trill at the beginning of “Come Sail Away.” And how I don’t give a damn if it’s a crappy trill, because the song is just so incredible. Clearly, DeYoung had plenty worth saying even if he could never have gotten accepted to Curtis.

  6. says

    I thought this snippet from the Musical Times of 1 May 1924 was a fun glimpse at how people debated similar topics way back when. Most entertaining is the editor’s response:


    DEAR SIR,-After reading about ‘bad music,’ an article written by Feste in the Ad Libitum column, I feel prompted to write to you.

    Reading between the lines it seems evident that Feste wants us all to worship and praise ‘highbrow’ music. It is people like Feste, in fact all highbrows, seem to want us to say ‘Glorious’ ‘Delightful’ ‘Splendid’ to a lot of discord without good strain of melody. Not only does ‘Classical’ music ‘torture’ the performer, but in 9 cases out of 10 ‘tortures’ the listener. I’ve had some. He appears to make humour out of Hubert David, that tuneful writer of ‘They just wore a string of beads etc’ but he dont make humour out of the individul who is ‘writhing in agony’ over a ‘ Highbrowsky Sonata.’

    Because people do not like ‘Classy ‘ music it does not mean that they are ‘musically uneducated’ as ‘ Feste’ seems to think, and other ‘great’ musicians, what ought to know better. It shows that the people generally, like tunefull music and that they have an ear for beautiful sounds not ‘musical science and gymnastics’ which are a feature of the classics. I used endeavour to be a ‘ classic’ pianist myself a few years back, but I know better now, I refuse to be hypnotised by these ‘great masters’ that

    their music is the best, I have studied what my own ears like. I do not want all to like what I like-popular music. But I’m going to see that the Highbrows do not attack popular music without getting a return blow. They have no right to attempt to stamp out the delights of popular music.-Yours truly, ‘ THE TRAVELLER.’

    26, Londesboro’ Rd., Stoke Newington.

    [We insert the above, in order that our correspondent may have no cause to complain that his ‘return blow’ was suppressed. We would remind him, however, of the obvious fact that the most popular music in the world- that is, the music most widely performed during the longest period-is almost entirely the work of the classical composers for whom he has no use. We print the letter exactly as it was received, lest an attempt to amend its composition be regarded as yet more ‘highbrowism.’ It may be worth while to add that we do not overlook the possibility of its being an elaborate and moderately successful joke.–


  7. says

    Used to be when I wanted to hear catchy tunes, vocal harmonies, and occasional bits of decent poetry, I would listen to rock music. For everything else that music has to offer — structure, counterpoint [remember counterpoint?], nuance, “the black keys of the emotions” (as I used to call them) — I turned to Schoenberg, Webern, Babbitt, Valen . . . my personal list of classical favorites. When I was in college the ratio was 50% rock, 40% classical, and 10% jazz (almost entirely of the Coleman-Taylor-Dolphy variety). As time went by the ratio changed, and classical (as defined above) came to predominate. Metal, punk, disco, grunge and mechanical pop did nothing for me. I am probably the only “music lover” who does not know the melody of a single Michael Jackson cut.

    What brought me back a bit to popular music (and alt-country/folk) was artists like Gillian Welch, Patty Griffin, Kate and Anna McGarrigle and Tori Amos — all women, interestingly enough –, who delivered the goods. Some of their songs are comparable to the lieder of Schreker, Reger and Zemlinsky, in my opinion.

    But that is not the type of “pop” music which is popular (and ubiquitous) today. Popular pop today is almost entirely hip-hop or hip-hop influenced. It is aggressively repetitive, and in that sense is very much the counterpart of classical minimalism. When I see kids with their iPods, tattooed ankles, pencil-pierced ears and skateboards, immersed in hip-hop for hours with glazed expressions, I cannot help but thinking that they want something very different from music than what I want. They seem to be after what I call CRT: Consciousness Replacement Therapy. This is not “psychedelic” music. It is very much the contrary.

    Where does that leave me? I think I’ll get a job as a postman, and whistle Webern all day.

  8. says

    Two observations, one about this post and the other more of a response to the previous one:

    1) The interesting thing about the shopping analogy is that it is increasingly common for consumers to frequent opposite ends of the retail spectrum, depending on what they’re buying — this is certainly true of my behavior, and I recall reading an article about this identifying it as a societal trend. In other words, many of us shop at both Saks and Walmart.

    2) Why do we as human beings *need* our favorite music to be “better?” “Better” in the realm of aesthetics is utterly impossible to prove in the way that a mountain is demonstrably higher or an athlete faster. Why can’t we just say “great” or “magnificent” or “transcendental,” no comparative necessary?

    Here’s what “better” has come to mean:

    This (item, experience) is excellent


    You are stupid.

    This may not be what we intend to communicate, but it’s what all too many people hear. And it only reinforces the impression that classical music fans are snobs — not that this problem is unique to classical music! (Perhaps a lot of alternative rock would reach a wider audience if its proponents weren’t so invested in the concept of “better.”)

    Suppose instead I said a piece of classical music was fantastic. Would you like to hear something fantastic? Of course — who wouldn’t? See how this is an invitation rather than a veiled putdown?

    To expand the audience for classical music, “better” may be the very worst word.

  9. ray says

    what is the classical world “cutting itself off from?” Its not “elitist” to point out that classical music exists on a HIGHER STANDARD.

    If a person can learn to play Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata, or Bach’s toccata and fugue in F for organ, those are real musical achievements, since those pieces are extremely difficult to learn – being able to is on a higher level than some teenager playing pop songs from a fake book. If that’s all someone’s going to do, what’s the point of teaching them piano at all? They could probably pick out chords on their own!

    Why is there such an absurd need to mix classical and pop music together, creating some kind of mongrel hybrid music? The “alt classical” music Ive heard on the internet is NOT classical music – not in the least. So what’s the point of using the name “classical” at all? Why not just call it something else?

    As a classical musician Ive met plenty of nonclassical musicians who resent the fact that classical music is viewed by most people as something on a higher level what what they’re doing – thus they want to pull classical music down to their level,just so they wont feel inferior.

    Classical music has plenty of “imagination, energy and delight” on its own! As a music critic, you should know that! Are opera singers supposed to abandon their normal style of performance and start imitating Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber?

  10. says

    Popular pop today is almost entirely hip-hop or hip-hop influenced.

    Wrong. Most pop today is influenced by a kind of European inflection of four-on-the-floor dance music that originated in disco. The big synth sounds over thumping, unvarying beats – Gaga, Britney, the new Aguilera, the new Miley Cyrus, etc. You can actually hear hip-hop going more in the direction of that sound nowadays; witness Jay-Z’s barely listenable “Blueprint 3,” which partakes heavily of it.

    This is EXACTLY the kind of criticism of pop music from ignorance that Greg is talkin’ about.

    Also: Has Lady Gaga officially replaced Britney Spears as the personification of pop music for classical music lovers? Based on the latest comments on Greg’s blog, it looks that way!